I often think with sadness of dead people I never knew. Robin Williams now of course, but also Humphrey Bogart, James Mason, Christopher Reeve, Errol Flynn, Houdini, Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw and many other film stars, since they flit so vividly across our screens and minds – but not only screen icons: also of Captain Salt, killed in the Atlantic Conveyor hit by an Argentinian exocet, Jean Moulin of the French resistance, Joseph Salk of the polio vaccine, Carl Sagan of “Cosmos”, Lawrence Oates, Anne Frank (and the millions like her), Wilfred Owen, Frederic Chopin – even poor old Harold Wilson and many others.
Why did these people’s deaths affect me so much and why do I still so often think of them? And then I remember my favourite poem, one of the most sublime ever written:
For Whom The Bell Tolls – John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
“Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. 17”
– (Meditation) – 1624 (published)
This philosophy is behind humanitarian interventions, which of course may have to occasionally include military action to save people. When, how, where and how much are usually impossible to quantify, and easy to get wrong. But doing NOTHING AT ALL in the face of evil is a non-starter.
We cannot do EVERYTHING, but we can almost always do SOMETHING.